Community Development and Indigenous Rights


Candace Shangin_Port Heiden Alaska

Too often, the people who live closest to nature suffer the most when natural systems are undermined. Pressures from unsustainable approaches to mining, oil exploration, agriculture, fishing, and forestry are eating away at wild landscapes including Indigenous peoples’ ancestral and sacred lands. Overfishing leaves coastal communities struggling to support their families. Climate change, water shortages, and soil erosion mean smallholders’ crops fail.

Even—or especially—in the face of such challenges, the individuals, families, and communities who live in the places are the conservation leaders we want to support. Conservation cannot be successful without them. At WWF, we prioritize deep community support, engagement, and inclusion. For us, securing nature and nature’s benefits for people are equal and interdependent goals.

Our work takes us to some of the most difficult places on Earth, where communities often face debilitating levels of violence, economic barriers, and weak applications of the rule of law. The natural resources they depend upon may be pillaged by opportunistic outsiders and conservation can be a pathway to sound development and stability. We are working harder than ever for the well-being of the most vulnerable communities we serve.

Only when people’s basic needs are met can they effectively steward nature. In many communities around the world, WWF is a key partner in supporting the health, rights, and livelihoods of the people who live there.

How community and Indigenous efforts contribute to protecting our oceans

While marine protected areas are the most well-known pathway to protect marine life, experts are turning toward ‘other effective conservation measures' (OECMs) to work alongside marine protected areas as complementary pathways that protect our ocean ecosystems.

A sea lion sits on the beach in the Galapagos with ocean water to its left and a mountain in the background

What WWF Is Doing

Benefiting health and well-being

By improving access to drinking water, sanitation, food, and medical attention, we bolster conservation. This includes building community health centers in the Central African Republic, where a mobile clinic delivers regular medical care to remote Indigenous communities in Dzanga-Sangha National Park. In Guatemala and Honduras, we work to protect natural water reserves—high altitude forests and waterways—that provide reliable water sources for drinking and agriculture; in downstream communities, we installed systems to provide clean water supply. In Cameroon, we support programs on family planning and education around hand-washing and sanitation. And in Tanzania, we try to make sure all people where we work have enough to eat—both by protecting people’s right to harvest subsistence food from forests and farmed lands, and through direct agricultural guidance, such as through our alliance with CARE.

Family participates in energy efficient cookstove project in Liangshan, China

Improving Livelihoods

Pratiksha Chaudhary is welcoming tourist at her homestay in Dalla, close to Bardia National Park, Nepal.

We help communities pursue economic alternatives to unsustainable practices—like overfishing or unregulated logging—in order to benefit communities and incomes. In Zambia, for example, we help smallholder farmers embrace sustainable practices that improve their yields while reducing impacts on vital rivers; in Thailand, we provided ecotourism training and developed an equitable program for taking tourists to see elephants in Kui Buri National Park; in Tanzania and Mozambique we facilitated a community savings and loan program to help communities fund education and economic opportunities; and in Ecuador, we helped galvanize large coalitions of small fishing groups to advocate for better management of the fish in their seas.

Supporting Community Decision-Making

Nelson Sabata, a guide at Camp Chobe, outside his home in Katounyana.

WWF works directly with communities to support community management of the natural resources they depend on, and to protect those resources against emerging outside threats. WWF helps communities secure and exercise their rights to traditional lands and customs, reinforce their role as stewards of the environment, and have a voice in government decisions that impact their lands and livelihoods. We also promote innovation, education, and implementation of strategies to expand community conservation across larger landscapes. This includes activities like establishing the Communal Conservancies in Namibia, where communities set their own economic, cultural, and environmental priorities—with guarantees of leadership roles for women and direct economic benefits from the tourists coming to see the wildlife they protect. It includes policy work, such as the historic agreement we helped establish between the Baka Indigenous people and the government of Cameroon.

Understanding the connections between nature and human health

The connection between human health and a healthy environment has never been more clear. Healthy communities help conserve a healthy planet, and a healthy planet is the foundation for healthy communities. When roads, logging, and agriculture push into and fragment previously intact forests, people are brought into closer contact with a vast collection of biodiverse plants and animals—and sometimes, to the pathogens they harbor. Research increasingly shows that disturbances to nature can lead to increasing instances of human disease. WWF is working with research partners around the world to understand these relationships more fully, and find solutions.

Securing legal services

Too often, the people who live and depend most heavily upon nature for their livelihoods and well-being do not have control over their own land. For years, WWF has worked to help local communities secure legal titles to their lands, and to help them realize their visions for nature-based income and opportunity. We have helped local communities in Zambia and Peru advocate and secure traditional land rights, and helped women the Democratic Republic of Congo gain—for the first time in that country—the legal right to manage their own land. Basic recognition of people’s status as citizens of their countries cannot be taken for granted in all places either: WWF has helped create an entire system to help BaAka children receive birth certificates—a relatively new practice until very recently—in Central African Republic and Cameroon.

Promoting Education

School teacher Jose Jesus Zafiama is from the La Chorrera indigenous community

Education offers a path forward for whole generations. In many of the places we work, WWF assesses educational needs in context of conservation and community goals, and works with local authorities to develop and deliver appropriate educational opportunities. Whether working with schoolchildren in Bhutan and Nepal, building classrooms in Cameroon, or helping to develop inclusive education strategies for BaAka, Sangha Sangha, and Bantu children in the Central African Republic, our goal is to unite education and conservation and develop inclusive and holistic approaches of benefit to all.